This recent Planet of the Apes trilogy has had a consistently haunting and majestic feel. It’s a sensibility that director Rupert Wyatt started with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011 and was sustained when filmmaker Matt Reeves directed Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014. That looming yet spiritual feeling continues with War for the Planet of the Apes, a soul-searching revenge film also directed by Reeves.
Props have to be given to Shaun Friedberg, senior animation technical director, who has worked on all three films. His magic and “Pyrokinesis” technology turns actors into apes that are so human, yet animalistic, that you can’t take your eyes off them. Friedberg’s visual effects are thoroughly complimented by a special effects team headed by Tyler Bilodeau. No matter how outrageous the sets (production design by James Chinlund, art direction by Richard Bloom, set decoration by Amanda Moss Serino), you get caught up in the moment, the geography, the terrain and the mindset. For 142 minutes, you live like you’re an animal under siege.
The preamble: An experimental drug designed to help repair human brains was tested on the chimpanzee Caesar (Andy Serkis). The drug caused a virus that devastated humans, leaving only outposts of survivors. Caesar became ultra-intelligent, shared the drug with fellow apes and they, after warfare with the humans, escaped into the redwood forests above San Francisco. Caesar’s nation of apes grew, and was pursued by humans. Caesar tried to keep the peace, but a rogue ape, Koba (Toby Kebbell), caused catastrophic friction that made Caesar and his colony flee deeper into the forest.
Present day: A group of soldiers, hunting the apes, penetrates the woods that hide the exiles. The combatants spy simians and open fire, killing many. Caesar returns to his brood and saves them from annihilation by launching a torrent of arrows on the enemy. Four soldiers survive the carnage. Caesar sends the survivors back to their sociopathic leader, The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), as a message of peace. His conciliatory gesture is met with escalating hostility.
The Colonel strikes back, hunting the apes down to their habitat, killing the ape leader’s wife and child, and then kidnapping the clan and taking them to a northern, wintry fortress. The normally circumspect Caesar is torn between rescuing his followers and exacting revenge. Caesar and his loyalists, the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval), the chimpanzee Rocket (Terry Notary) and the gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) track his tribe over snowy landscapes. They are joined by a new, somewhat doofy, simian named Bad Ape (Steve Zahn), who they find along the way. All are on a rescue mission that takes the audience to a cataclysmic ending.
Screenwriter Mark Bomback has taken the characters to a deeper and more conflicted place. He’s added in comic relief in the guise of Bad Ape, a dopey interloper. And for good measure the writer augments the adult ape team with a young human mute girl named Nova (Amiah Miller). Maybe his hope was that her presence might attract a younger and more female audience to this male-focused film.
There are lots of juicy plot points for Planet… fans. The incarceration of the apes at what looks like a prison camp has a thinly veiled hint of slavery, Native American genocide, Japanese internment camps and WWII Jewish death camps. For some, this metaphor may be an over reach. For others, it supplies a depth that drives home the point that historically, humans can exhibit fascist tendencies and be unconscionably cruel. Does this device in a sci-fi film feel exploitative? Does it embolden this cautionary tale? That’s a debate that will rage at Starbucks or a local bar after the audience leaves the theater.
Director Matt Reeves creates a believable world in which intelligent simians seem far more humane than the Homo sapiens. There are visions you will see on screen that are indelible. The most haunting are in the beginning when the apes’ forest is invaded and you are dragged into their world. The trees, brush and waterfalls are very atmospheric. As the film progresses and a wintry setting comes into view, with the prison camp being the central focus, it feels like the evocative almost hypnotic footage turns into a straight out action film, a la The Great Escape. But even with this unsettling change, it’s hard to take your eyes off of the screen.
As Caesar, Serkis speaks in an impassioned monotone that is entrancing. Few words, lots of brooding. His performance holds the film together and nothing is lost between his emotional outburst and what you see on-screen in the guise of an ape figure. Zahn as Bad Ape provides the proper amount of funny turns, ensuring that the material doesn’t become too serious.
If there is one weak link in the casting it is Harrelson. In extended scenes with Caesar he seems to trip over his dialogue. Laconic conversations work well with the ape characters. Giving Harrelson too many words just makes it obvious that the role is too big for his acting skills. If Jeffrey Wright, Daniel Day-Lewis, Denzel Washington or Christian Bale had played The Colonel, they would have created an unforgettable performance that would have elevated the film.
The audience will side with the apes and want to go on their journey as they defend themselves from a constant onslaught of violence and evil. As Caesar suffers unconscionable loss and grief, fights his inner demons and tries to bring his clan to safety, you will stay with him on his mission until he succeeds or fails.
This homage to the 1968 Planet of the Apes film will be remembered and respected for decades to come.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.